Epic Intimate Family Saga

At the center of Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens stand two women: Rose and Miriam Zimmer.  Rose, the aptly nicknamed Red Queen of Sunnyside, Queens, an unreconstructed Communist who savages neighbors, family, and political comrades with the ferocity of her personality and the absolutism of her beliefs. Her precocious and willful daughter, Miriam, equally passionate in her activism, flees Rose’s influence to embrace the counterculture of Greenwich Village.  These women cast spells over the men in their lives: Rose’s aristocratic husband, Albert; her cousin, the feckless chess hustler Lenny; Cicero, the brilliant son of her black cop lover; Miriam’s (slightly fraudulent) Irish folksinging husband, Tommy; their bewildered son, Sergius. Flawed and idealistic, Lethem’s characters struggle to inhabit the utopian dream in an America where radicalism is viewed with bemusement, hostility, or indifference.  As the decades pass—from the parlor communism of the ’30s, McCarthyism, the civil rights movement, ragged ’70s communes, the romanticization of the Sandinistas, up to the Occupy movement of the moment—we come to understand through Lethem’s extraordinarily vivid storytelling that the personal may be political, but the political, even more so, is personal.

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